Beginner's Guide

6 steps to starting your family history

There are 6 main steps for starting your family history.

1. Gather information you already have.

When starting on your family history, you need to start with yourself and work backwards.  The first step therefore is to gather together all the documents and information you already have.  For information on the types of documents you can use, refer to my post “Types of records to use for family history”.

2. Contact your relatives for more information. 

Once you have gone through the records you already have, it is time to start contacting family members for more information. You can either visit them in person, or send letters.  For more details on the types of questions you can ask, and some tips on interviewing relatives, refer my post “Contact your relatives for more information”.

3. Organise your research.

As you accumulate more and more records and information, you will need to organise your records, in order to find information easily. There are a number of guides on the internet on how to go about organising your research:

File Your

Dear Myrtle Finally Get Organized

How I Organise My Genealogy

Another Sort of A to Z: Your Genealogy Filing System

4. Cite your sources

For each record you gather to begin with, each letter from or interview with a relative, and for all the resources you later use, you need to make a note of the details of where and when you received the information.  What information you need to note down varies according to the type of record.  A couple of genealogy programs have Source Templates that can help you know what information you need to note for each type of record.  Another resource is Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book Evidence Explained.

Although I have kept fairly good details for where and when I received the information I have, there have been times when I haven’t been aware of what information I should have been recording (particularly in the early days ). By familiarising yourself with the information needed for each source type before undertaking further research, you will avoid this problem.

5. Decide on how you will record your information.

Once you start accumulating information, you will want to set up a family tree, in order to keep track of how people are related to each other. You can do this either manually, using family group sheets and pedigree charts, or use a family tree program, which makes the task so much easier (and saves on paper and ink). Refer my post “Deciding on a family tree program” for more information on deciding which program to use.  If you do decide to use pen and paper, there are a number of resources listed on Cyndi’s List   The charts I thought were the best were from

6. Expand your research

Once you have gathered the information you already have, and contacted relatives for more information, you will then need to start expanding your research.  The different records you would need to access, and whether you can access records on the internet, or whether you need to visit libraries and archives, depends on where you live, where your ancestors came from, and the type of record.  You can refer to my Resources section to links to record collections, and guides to help you with your family history research.

A post I would suggest you read when researching is Has Ancestry Dot Com Made Us Lazy As Researchers?  This post has a list of the skills needed to be successful as a genealogist.

The main tip I would give is it’s called family history research for a reason.  You need to be prepared to do your own research.  Where online family trees, and other information supplied by family members, can be a great starting point, they are just that – a starting point.  You need to be prepared to look for the original records to confirm the information you have been told for yourself.  And don’t be afraid of criticism – we all make mistakes, especially in the beginning, so use any comments you receive from others to help you become a better researcher.